The Guerilla Manager:  Leading from the Middle

Leadership opportunities abound for middle managers. If you are feeling stuck it’s only in your head.

You probably can look around your company and see a lot of things that need changing – there is always room for Continuous Improve­ment. But there’s just one minor problem. We’ve been taught that changes, to be effective, must start at the top. An effective MRP program must have Top Managements full support. We are taught that Total Quality Management (TQM) will fall flat on its face if Top Management’ doesn’t fully support it with training or if it opens and closes the tap due to a need to boost quarterly results. Without Top Management’s attention and backing Just in Time’s (JIT) implementation is due the same fate.  And on and on. But the other vital ingredient to successful Continuous Im­provement is Middle Manage­ment. Middle managers form the link between Top Management ideals and shop floor reality. Even with Top Managements’ backing, there is no way to implement major change in an organization without Middle Management.

The problem occurs when Top Management is not effec­tively leading team efforts to improve manufacturing or service operations. First of all, Top Management may feel that change in the plant or process is unnecessary. Even if they know major changes are in order, Top Management may not be able to lend effective support to efforts to improve the shop floor. They may lack the imagi­nation, time, or skills to direct effective change. In this case, all too frequent in companies today, Middle Management can and must implement major change from below. The middle man­ager must transform himself from being the “missing link” between Top Management and the shop floor to being a “guerrilla man­ager.” We are in a time of total economic warfare on a global scale, and we must use every tactic available to us to win for our companies, our fellow employees, ourselves, and for our children.

By guerilla management, I don’t mean strong arming employees or battling with Top Management (that would be “gorilla management.”)  Guerilla Management is, quite simply, leading from below.  It is a grass roots improvement effort. Guerilla Managers must cajole, teach, or otherwise make the people on the shop floor or in the office realize that they can make a difference, and in so doing instill the values ­and winning attitudes that pave the way for major changes. They must identify and win little battles to start the company down the right road. They must lead the fight from below. As positive results achieved, Top Management will take note and, hopefully, get on the team.

The guerrilla manager shows the way-to improvement by example, by improving things within his (her) own area of influence. It occurs in the absence of direction from above. It is pro-active problem solving; independently driving Continuous Improvement.

Guerrilla Management begins with talking with the people around you and on the shop floor, either in a formal or informal setting, to see what their problems are, and then moving to solve some of them. In the beginning, it is important to’ ‘choose problems which are’ ­within the guerrilla manager’s scope of influence and yet will have a visible impact. More difficult problems will follow as the movement catches on. Some examples may include simply documenting the work process in a clear, easy to follow manner to enable rapid cross training and training of new recruits, or the establishment of statistical pro­cess control in one section of one department to solve a problem. It may be by instituting a simple Kanban system for maintaining subassembly stocks or by reorga­nizing a department into cellular manufacturing centers. Or the guerrilla manager may start things rolling by cleaning up the clutter in a department – returning obsolete stock to the warehouse, reducing excess shelf spaces, labeling shelves with part numbers, etc.  The use of color may also help effect change. Bright colors may be used to distinguish product lines or to identify reject codes (try colored flags or bins.) There are literally thousands of ideas, most of which cost little or nothing to implement. . The key is to start somewhere and then keep on trying different things.

Another key to successful ­guerrilla management is to develop other guerrillas within ­your organization. Take stock of your fellow managers. Ask yourself, who is on the beam? Who is a risk taker?  Who is doing clever things with their departments? ­ Who is striving to improve things?  Who is listening? These people are your allies. Work with them to achieve demonstrable results. Serve as a mentor to sharp junior managers, supervisors, and leaders, developing them as much as possible.  Encourage them to take advantage of outside educational opportunities, either local Junior Colleges or Trade Associations. And by all means, do so yourself.

Middle managers, by their example, can convince Top Management to endorse the very programs they should be leading the charge on. Even in the absence of leadership from the top; middle managers must have faith in their own abilities to effect ­change by employing guerrilla management techniques. It is true that Top Management’s full participation is imperative to achieve World Class Manufactur­ing. But something is better than nothing. Better Quality Management though far short of Total Quality Management is better them No Quality Management. Baby steps are better than no steps at all. Who knows? Once Top Management sees that you are walking in the right direction they just may join you.

Copyright 2012 Paul Yandell.  All rights reserved.

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2 thoughts on “The Guerilla Manager:  Leading from the Middle

  1. Pingback: Transforming Lean Thru Middle Managers | paulyandell

  2. Pingback: Kaizen Progression and Continuous Improvement | paulyandell

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